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Published: 27 august 2013 10:59

After eight years, Lithuania is withdrawing from Afghanistan's Ghor Province

PAG stovyklos perdavimo ceremonija
Andriaus Matuzo nuotr. / PAG stovyklos perdavimo ceremonija

Lithuania has officially ended its mission in Afghanistan's Ghor Province, having been in charge of security and reconstruction in the Afghan province for eight years.

On Sunday, Lithuanian Minister of National Defense Juozas Olekas attended a solemn ceremony in the provincial capital of Chaghcharan of the handover of a base camp, set up by Lithuanians, to the Afghan National Army.

Lithuanian troops are scheduled to leave Ghor Province over the next week.

"We can say that we have fulfilled our task," Olekas told BNS after the ceremony on Sunday when Lithuania's flag was lowered following Lithuania and Afghanistan's national anthems.

According to the minister, the situation in one of the poorest provinces of Afghanistan has changed for the better over the last eight years, and Lithuanian soldiers have gained valuable experience.

"The local authorities and the international community highly value work of our military personnel and civilians. I see a lot of changes as more people smile, streets have been paved, there are new houses, new businesses," Olekas said.

"It has been of tremendous value for us as we have tested cooperation with the Alliance's partners. Our troops are now much better prepared to defend Lithuania, if needed," the Lithuanian defense minister said.

In 2005-2013, Lithuania's Ministry of National Defense allocated over 300 million litas (EUR 86.5 million) for activities of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Ghor, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spent over 17 million litas on development cooperation projects. Civilian projects in Ghor Province were mostly funded by Japan and the United States.

Based on the government's decision, Lithuania has left to a battalion of the Afghan National Army the base camp Lithuanians built in 2005 and which is now worth, including the equipment left, around 15 million litas.

Around 500 soldiers of the Afghan National Army, stationed in Ghor, will be able to use the camp. In addition, 1,300 police officers and 150 public security officers will also ensure security in the province.

Afghanistan's army is demonstrating self-confidence and says it is ready to act against rebels without Lithuanians' assistance.

"Taliban fighters and illegal armed groups will be the biggest threat to security in Ghor.

"There are problems but we hope to resolve them through cooperation with Afghanistan's central government. I am convinced that we can ensure security in Ghor," Ghor Governor Sayed Anwar Rahmati told BNS.

Having worked with Afghan soldiers and police, Lithuanian army officers recognize their abilities but warn that Taliban rebels spotted in the south of the province might try to strengthen their positions.

The Afghan National Security Forces might also need to deal with violence, sparked by criminal structures, and inter-tribal conflicts in Ghor.

"As compared to last year, we see that rebel forces have become very active as they feel that the ISAF forces are leaving. Therefore, rebels are trying to get as much influence as possible," Colonel Tomas Masaitis, commander of the Lithuanian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team, told BNS.

"The local forces are well-trained. It will depend on their wish. If they want, have good inter-coordination, then those forces that are now in Ghor are ready," Masaitis said.

Currently, there are around 87,000 international coalition troops in Afghanistan but their number is decreasing with every month. NATO plans to end its tactical mission by the end of next year.

As the international coalition is withdrawing, some observers warn that the Taliban may be able to take over part of the territory and create preconditions for a civil war once the US and its allies leave.

"It is obvious that rebel groups are very strong in the military and political sense. But it's hard to say whether it's one united group that might come into power as one front," Professor Egdunas Račius of Lithuania's Vytautas Magnus University told BNS.

High hopes are pinned on Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai's pledge to seek agreement with the Taliban to end violence and share power.

Taking into account the fact that Afghanistan's army obviously still needs air, logistics, and intelligence assistance, NATO has also pledged to not completely withdraw from Afghanistan and is considering leaving 8,000 to 15,000 troops for a new training mission in the country beyond 2014.

"Such a huge reduction of troops – from the peak 130,000 to around 10,000 – reflects the reality. First of all, Afghanis have their own forces. Second, they need further assistance for training. Third, the reduced presence of international forces in Afghanistan will open up the political space for talks between the Taliban and Afghanistan's government," EU Ambassador to Afghanistan Vygaudas Ušackas, who is finishing his work this month, told BNS.

The United States and its allies intend to announce their detailed plans after an agreement among the United States, NATO, and Afghanistan's government is signed.

The agreement will define the status and role of international coalition troops, and then, at the invitation of Afghanistan, NATO will finally agree on the mission.

"It is likely that NATO will be invited by Afghanistan's government to conduct the mission beyond 2014," Lithuanian Ambassador to NATO Kęstutis Jankauskas told BNS.

Lithuania also plans to join the new training mission and is currently mulling sending its troops to either the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif or the south of Afghanistan.

Lithuania lost one serviceman during its mission in Ghor when Sergeant Arūnas Jarmalavičius was shot by protesters who surrounded the base camp in 2008.

Following the withdrawal from Ghor Province, up to 100 soldiers from the Lithuanian army's Special Operations Squadron will stay in the south of Afghanistan.

The Lithuanian-led Air Force Training Group training Afghanistan's pilots will also stay in Afghanistan as well as the National Support Element. The number of military officers at the headquarters of the NATO mission will be reduced, and only the Special Mission Protection Team protecting the head of the Special Mission in Afghanistan will be left.

The international operation in Afghanistan was launched after the United States intervened in 2001 and drove the Taliban from power as it was closely linked to terrorist network Al Qaeda responsible for the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

BNS
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